Concern grows over stalled GSA nomination

For more than eight months, Martha Johnson has been in bureaucratic purgatory.

President Obama nominated Johnson on April 3, 2009, to serve as chief of the General Services Administration, and she easily cleared the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in June. But, Johnson's name has yet to reach the Senate floor for a full vote due to a hold by Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., involving a Kansas City building project.

A former GSA chief of staff during the Clinton administration, Johnson now has waited longer than any other Obama nominee to be confirmed. And, some are beginning to suggest that the White House is not doing enough to break the stalemate.

"One has to wonder why the president is not being more aggressive and energetic in his defense of Martha Johnson," said GSA former Administrator Lurita A. Doan, who held the spot from May 2006 until she resigned in controversy in April 2008 and is now a Federal News Radio commentator. "The GSA administrator is an important position with broad responsibilities. Martha Johnson was President Obama's nominee. Obama could push Johnson's confirmation forward if he wanted to, but he seems content to allow her to twist in the wind."

Doan was forced out of the job after butting heads with Democratic lawmakers, GSA's inspector general and eventually, the Bush White House. Since then, the agency has been in perpetual transition.

David Bibb served as acting administrator from May 2008 until his retirement three months later. Jim Williams, the commissioner of GSA's Federal Acquisition Service, filled in until the Obama administration appointed Paul Prouty as acting chief in January 2009. Prouty, whose family is in Denver, opted to return home last month and resume his former job as assistant regional administrator in the Public Buildings Service in GSA's Rocky Mountain Region. Stephen Leeds, who had been working as a senior counselor to Prouty, was named the fourth acting administrator in 20 months.

The ongoing management upheaval apparently has taken its toll. Last week, Danielle Germain, named GSA's chief of staff in June, stepped down, citing the lengthy delay in Johnson's nomination. Meanwhile, Barnaby Brasseux, who served as GSA's deputy administrator since September 2008, retired in early January.

"Fundamentally, the agency can still function, almost on autopilot," said a former GSA official who requested anonymity to speak freely about the situation. "But, without a leader there is no one really setting the agenda or laying out their vision of what needs to be done."

GSA spokeswoman Sahar Wali said the delays have not hurt morale or general operations, but rather kept the agency in a permanent transition period.

"Imagine a business being without a CEO," Wali said. "Now imagine that for two years."

An industry source said part of the problem is GSA is not a high-visibility agency and Johnson lacks the political connections to broker a deal. And, while GSA is undergoing its share of personnel upheaval, sources said the situation pales in comparison to the void at the Transportation Security Administration, where, in the midst of several crises, including an attempted terrorist attack on Christmas Day, Erroll Southers' nomination to serve as administrator has been delayed by a hold from Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C.

"I've worried all along about nominees that get held up, particularly when it has nothing to do with the nominee or his or her qualifications," the industry source said. "Given all of the high-priority issues on the table, the need to make all kinds of deals, how much is the White House willing to give for an individual?"

Another well-informed acquisition source said the White House has "hung [Johnson] out to dry." But, sources told Government Executive the White House is not considering alternatives to Johnson at this point.

The Office of Management and Budget did not respond to a request for comment.

By February, the Senate is expected to invoke cloture on Johnson's nomination, along with several other appointees currently being bogged down by holds, according to one government source familiar with discussions. Cloture -- a process in which debate on a bill or nomination is brought to an end -- can be complicated. It requires 60 votes, can take 30 hours of debate and no other legislative matters can be considered until the process is complete.

"They just need to set aside time for debate," the government source said. "That's the big issue right now."

Some lawmakers, however, are getting impatient. Leslie Phillips, a spokeswoman for the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said Chairman Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., is "frustrated" by the delay in Johnson's confirmation.

"It is contrary to the public interest to block a qualified nominee based on parochial interests, and irresponsible to block a nominee for this length of time," Phillips said. "GSA needs strong, focused leadership, and the hold on Martha Johnson's nomination puts the entire agency at a disadvantage."

Bond's hold apparently has little to do with Johnson's qualifications, which sources indicated are not in doubt. The senator wants GSA to close down the federally owned Bannister Federal Complex outside Kansas City and relocate the 1,200 employees who work there to office space downtown, as part of a major revitalization project.

The original plan, submitted to Congress in 2008, had been for a local developer to build a new office center and lease it back to GSA. Sources said Brad Scott, who served as GSA's regional administrator in Kansas City during President George W. Bush's administration, brokered the plan. Scott was Bond's deputy chief of staff for 12 years.

GSA officials said they still plan to move employees from the Bannister complex but have changed their strategy from leasing the new space to building and buying it. Bond's office did not respond to a request for comment.

"GSA has done what it can to move forward with this process," Wali said.

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